I'm 15, and the blood is sticky on my face.
Or, rather, the corn syrup dyed with red food colouring is; it hardens underneath the hot stage lights in streaks where the blonde girl in front of me has smeared it. She's digging her hands into the corpse of a pig – or, the spray-painted towel stitched into the shape of a pig – and squeezing out stage blood onto the faces of her obediently gathered hunters. She is Jack; the dark-haired girl to my left is Roger; and I am Bill, shifting my stance to stop my legs from falling asleep. Ralph is offstage, showing Piggy something on her phone. I can hear them giggling behind the curtain.
The next scene is not one I like. In it, I traipse across the stage with my head bent down, staring at the floor. Jack yells at me, and commands me to spit on the ground. I spit.
It isn't so much that I'm scared of her. She's lovely offstage. But it's a creeping feeling, one I can't name yet; it reminds me of something else, something long ago. Other girls and other faces, other words spoken in the screaming, but it reminds me nonetheless. Sleepovers and playgrounds. Blue eyes watching me, the uptick of a mouth. Exclusion, or worse, poisoned inclusion, and the terrible ache of not belonging. I think of all this, and wonder.
Our cast for tonight's show is all-female. If we had been stranded together – if it had been us, not them – what would we do? Would we be better?
Somehow, I cannot envision it.
In 2017, Warner Brothers Studio announced that they had recently signed a deal with filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel for the production of a remake of William Golding's celebrated novel, Lord of the Flies
. Published in 1954, it's been the subject of three previous film adaptations; one English, one American, and one Filipino, each placing emphasis on slightly different elements of the text, certain themes taking the spotlight each time. Questions of colonialism and the legacy of war sit alongside the more picked-over elements of human darkness, brutality and betrayal. It is an enduring piece of literature discussed in classrooms around the world, brought to life onstage through Nigel Williams's play adaptation and Matthew Bourne's ballet.
As a well-worn cultural icon no stranger to being reimagined, the backlash McGehee and Siegel's production faced may seem somewhat surprising. But this new project concealed a transformative sting: it would would replace the boys of the original novel with girls.
The project immediately struggled to get off the ground with what was likely its target demographic: feminist women. 'An all women remake of Lord of the Flies
makes no sense because... the plot of that book wouldn't happen with all women,' tweeted Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist
, in the wake of the film's announcement. Yet another tweet exclaimed that 'SOMEONE MISSED THE ******* POINT,' an all-capitals assertion that no, this remake was not asked for, nor wanted.
Riane Konc, writing for the New Yorker
, produced a parody of the all-girl remake. Scenes she adapts from the novel include Simon reciting poetry, Piggy drawing up schedules, and, rather than hunting for meat, the girls discussing the benefits of vegetarianism. 'If I took this desiccated pig head down from this spike,' Konc writes, 'would anybody split it with me?'
The question of why
, exactly, it is difficult to imagine girls being so brutal, is an interesting one, and requires nuanced discussion. But this debate must almost certainly be tackled by examining our preconceptions of gender roles. Why is it that, faced with the brutality of ourselves, we turn to the picture of girls sitting around and discussing vegetarianism? The answer: it's what we know.
It is difficult for me to approach this discussion without being drawn back to my own childhood. It paints my preteen sleepovers in savage watercolour; the faces of my friends glowing strange in the kitchen light, whispered promises and violent betrayals, the breathy excitement of secrets. I know a Jack, and I know a Ralph. I know more than one Simon, and yet more Piggys. I know a thousand thousand teenage hunters, as quick to turn as any wind, deadly in their complicity. And many of them are girls.
A controversial investigative series in 2009 left a group of children alone in a house for a week and documented their actions. The first run was with boys, the second with girls. While much of the action is suspected to have been prompted by film crews, the speed at which the projects hurtled towards disaster was still startling. The boy's group almost entirely emulated Golding's novel, complete with a hunt through the house, emotional and physical bullying of the weaker boys, and animal cruelty to a garden hedgehog. The girl's group, fascinatingly, declined almost just as quickly. While less physical harassment occurred, the house became a social minefield, with children locking themselves in bathrooms, trying to make other girls wet themselves, and more than one being sent home in distress before the week was out.
In the years since the disastrous announcement of the new Lord of the Flies
adaptation, the project has been altered to once more feature boys, not girls. But other projects have quietly made their own statement; Amazon's The Wilds
, a story of teenage girls marooned after a plane crash, draws sharp parallels with the original text – and was a critical and commercial success.
This November, Showtime released the first episode of its new drama, Yellowjackets
, focusing on a high school soccer team becoming stranded in the mountains after (uniquely) a plane crash, and the cruel, gory fight for survival. All-girl remakes are not without an audience, nor are they without their own bespoke kind of brutality. I am reminded of childhood games of running and hiding from the girls that knew the way to balance a punch, and of the simple violence that undercuts hockey matches. I am reminded of being eight years old, helpless but not blameless, listening to girls whisper jagged things about their best friends.
I'm still on the stage, and I'm still 15. It's that scene I hate so much.
I look up, and Jack is staring at me. It's hard to drag my gaze away from the long streaks of bright red dashed down her cheeks, the dirt and twigs we rubbed in her hair during the interval, and it takes me a moment to realise her eyes are wide. I've forgotten my line.
Ralph stifles a giggle behind me. I wince, sifting through my thoughts in one last desperate attempt to seize control of the scene before it all tips sideways.
But I am beaten to it. When I look back at her, Jack has taken a step backwards, mouth open; she starts, in a strung-out yell, to improvise. The scene slips back into control. My next line springs to mind almost immediately.
We exit stage-left. Once we have reached the safety of backstage, she gives my shoulder a squeeze, and throws me a smile. 'Well done,' she says. I grin back at her.
for the winning paper by Holly Helbert
for the joint runner-up paper by Tristan Bleak